INDIANAPOLIS – The spotlight of the football world was once again on Manti Te’o on Saturday.
The Notre Dame linebacker’s press conference, his first since the Jan. 16 revelation of a hoax that duped him for four years, was the most anticipated of the NFL Scouting combine. While hundreds of media, sometimes three or four deep, watched in person and the NFL Network televised it nationally, NFL coaches, scouts and personnel were glued to TVs around Lucas Oil Stadium, anxious to see how Te’o would handle his first public questioning of the “incident.”
They weren’t watching to learn about the details as much as they were to see how the 22-year-old would handle the attention.
“We’ll watch that,” Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said. “I think that’s a very valuable part of the process in handling media when they have to talk in front of (them).
“It’s not a be-all, end-all decision-maker, but we can tell if this guy needs some polish or technique if we do draft this guy on how to handle the media.”
By all accounts, Te’o passed the media test, answering the questions with what appeared to be a genuine honesty. He talked about being embarrassed, how going to the grocery store drew stares and whispers and how the worst part was finding out his family had sneak into their home to avoid the media crush.
But the questions he answered for about 15 minutes Saturday were just part of the process, a sliver of the gauntlet he went through at the combine.
As of Saturday afternoon, Te’o had spoken with just two teams, but had interviews scheduled with 18 more. Everyone he spoke with in Indianapolis asked him about the “incident,” some just briefly, others in more details, seeking the truth to a story that captivated America.
Players like Te’o, some with character or some with legal issues, show up at the combine every year.
Two weeks ago, Georgia linebacker Alex Ogletree was arrested in Arizona and charged with DUI. Last year, teams were skeptical about drafting cornerback Janoris Jenkins because he fathered four children with three different women. Two years ago, questions surrounded quarterback Ryan Mallett about alleged drug use.
“When you're looking for guys that have off-field incidents you're trying to get as much information as possible first,” Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said. “You are the information gatherers. You want to evaluate the situation, you want to make sure you feel you're not penalizing someone for something improperly. That's the first part of it.
“Then you want to sit down and talk to them and talk to as many people that know those people, get all the information and then make a decision based on that information and the specific player, as opposed to making a general statement.”
Te’o understands why teams are asking the questions, but he’s hoping to answer them all this weekend and move on to football.
“They want to be able to trust their players and you don’t want to invest in somebody you can’t trust,” Te’o said. “They wanted to hear it from me.”
Most of the coaches and general managers who spoke about Te’o were impressed with his football ability. Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said Te’o was a “heck of a player” but didn’t think his draft stock would suffer. Neither did San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and that was the sense Te’o felt after his first couple of meetings.
But the complexity of the Te’o’s story still concerns some coaches.
New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese said he’ll have the team’s younger scouts explain Te’o’s situation to coach Tom Coughlin, who isn’t up on social media. Then the Notre Dame star will explain his side of it again to Coughlin.
Others like John Elway, the Denver Broncos executive vice president of football operations, just want to talk to Te’o.
“Personally, I don’t get caught up in everything that is swirling around him,” Elway said. “I’m looking forward to sitting down and talking to him. I know him as a football player. He’s a very good football player. He’s going to have a successful career in the NFL. I’m looking forward to sitting down and talking to him.”
For the 20 teams Te’o will speak to at the combine, it’s their chance to ask the questions. They can dig like private investigators, Rams general manager Les Snead said. They can see, first hand, how Te’o reacts.
But it’s Te’o who has the most to gain.
“You only get one first impression and these guys have rehearsed it pretty well,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “But it's still the first one.”